Rep. John Lewis ‘Clarifies’ His Civil Rights Knock on Bernie Sanders

This week, the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee made news by endorsing Hillary Clinton for president, but the real star of the show was Rep. John Lewis (D-SC), who was asked to comment on Bernie Sanders’ Civil Rights Era activism, and kind of went in on him:

Well, to be very frank, I don’t want to cut you off, but I never saw him, I never met him. I’m a chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years, from 1963 to 1966. I was involved in the sit-ins, the freedom rides, the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery, and directed their voter education project for six years. But I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton.

When I wrote about Ben Jealous’ dishonest campaign against Hillary Clinton this week, someone asked me if I was also “outraged” by Rep. Lewis’ remarks, and I gave a short answer, but here’s the longer one. First and foremost, I don’t have a damn thing to say about how John Lewis chooses to express himself about the civil rights movement, I don’t have standing, whereas I do have standing to call anyone out when they’re lying.

Having said that, any asshole can have an opinion. It’s my opinion that Rep. Lewis’ distaste is probably rooted in the way that Bernie Sanders’ surrogates and supporters have used his civil rights activism as a shield against present-day criticism, something that Sanders himself has done to a much lesser degree. I don’t think that Bernie himself necessarily deserved such a hard shot, but Lewis has earned the right to deliver it, and Bernie’s supporters have invited it. The setting of his remarks, however, placed them in a context that was unworthy of him.

On Saturday, Rep. Lewis released a statement attempting to clarify his remarks, and cast them in a more unifying light. Here is Rep. Lewis’ statement in full:

“We are facing a crossroads in the history of our country. The choices we make in this election will determine the very future of our nation. Will we go back or continue to more forward toward the building of a more perfect union? As we move through this competitive campaign season, we must respect each individual’s sacred right to choose, whether we like a person’s decision or not. That is our democracy in action, a process in which we have all committed to participate. But at the end of the day, we must unite and determine to work together to ensure a Democrat becomes president in the fall.

“In the interest of unity, I want to clarify the statement I made at Thursday’s news conference.I was responding to a reporter’s question who asked me to assess Sen. Sanders’ civil rights record. I said that when I was leading and was at the center of pivotal actions within the Civil Rights Movement, I did not meet Sen. Bernie Sanders at any time. The fact that I did not meet him in the movement does not mean I doubted that Sen. Sanders participated in the Civil Rights Movement, neither was I attempting to disparage his activism. Thousands sacrificed in the 1960s whose names we will never know, and I have always given honor to their contribution.

“If you take a look at a transcript of my statement, you will find I did not say that I met Hillary and Bill Clinton when I was chairman of SNCC in the 1960s. My point was that when I was doing the work of civil rights, led the Voter Education Project and organized voter registration in the South in the 1970s, I did cross paths with Hillary and Bill Clinton in the field. They were working in politics, and Bill Clinton became attorney general of Arkansas in the 1970s as well. That began a relationship with them that has lasted until today.

“We, as a party, must remember we have a great need to work together. We must not get lost in hostility and discord. After all, it was not the Democrats who sponsored and defended Citizens United, who are making it harder to register and vote, or are working to privatize Social Security,get rid of Obamacare, Medicare, food and income supports for the poor, the hungry and more.We should debate the issues vigorously, but we must not tear each other apart and damage our ability to unite and defeat the Republican nominee for president.”